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Staying True to Your Brand During a Crisis

7 MINUTE READ | June 16, 2020

Staying True to Your Brand During a Crisis

During the spring, the US declared ‘Shelter in Place,’ urging the country to stay inside during the COVID-19 pandemic. Local and federal lawmakers closed nonessential businesses and did everything they could to encourage citizens to limit exposure and practice social distancing—a palatable way to say “avoid your friends and family.” In short, the world was a half plot twist from an M. Night Shyamalan film, and our country’s leaders found that total isolation was a hard thing to ask of a social nation. Thankfully, many companies jumped in to help and have dropped their regular slogans to tell their followers to stay inside.

The COVID pandemic and times of crisis present opportunities for brands to focus on more than just ROI and instead bolster their brand reputation by spreading messages that support a nation looking for guidance. The brands willing to use their influence to help, rather than try to capitalize on fear and uncertainty are proving that there are tasteful ways to sell products during a crisis if their heart is in the right place. Here are some brands that found a unique spin on phrases that were true to their brands and some that fell short.

Nike was quick to respond to the seriousness of COVID-19 with a message to its followers. It was a relatively straightforward post that was nothing more than black text on a white background and the “swoosh,” but the message was perfect. Playing at the hearts of aspiring athletes of all ages, Nike flipped its typical call to action on its head and instead urged the country to stay inside, because staying indoors meant ‘playing’ for the world. Nike called on people to be heroic, honoring role models that the brands have endorsed throughout its history. 

ViacomNBC partnered with the Ad Council to get a message in front of Viacom’s network, including MTV, Comedy Central, CMT, and VH1Ads. The intent was to encourage young people to social distance and stay home and watch TV. The message was a clever combination of opposing sentiments that successfully captured the state of isolation. The only problem is that any brand could have shared the same message. #AloneTogether didn’t have any unique meaning to Viacom, its younger audience, and it left out any television tieback. In my opinion, #AloneTogether was a missed opportunity to establish unique brand messaging.

“Let’s get ready together.” “Come practice yoga with me.” “Stay home and cook with me.”

These are just a few invitations from the YouTube influencers who asked the world to stay at home with them. #WithMe was YouTube’s way of saying that staying home doesn’t mean alone and certainly doesn’t have to be boring. YouTube’s mission preCOVID was to connect the world through video, and #WithMe made it even more possible during COVID.

With every problem, there is a solution. The world didn’t want to give up eating at their favorite restaurants, which were all required to temporarily close their doors, and DoorDash had the answer. During mandatory Shelter in Place, DoorDash presented a message that would typically be written in black Sharpie on a piece of printer paper taped to the front door. But coming from DoorDash, “Open For Delivery” during quarantine meant salvation. 

The allure of taking food from strangers at a drive-thru window certainly decreased as the number of cases rose from March into April, but the windows remained open throughout quarantine. Most were quick to implement extra safety steps like contactless pickup to ensure that fast food slowed the spread of COVID-19, Burger King being one of the most vocal. 

Burger King released its video “Contactless,” which aired on streaming services like YouTube TV and cable networks that focused on all the ways Burger King and the BK app would keep you fed and safe during trying times. The sentiment was a strong one, but the tagline “Let us take care of you, while you take care of yourself” was certainly not in line with the Burger King brand.

While “Let us take care of you,” and “have it your way” are similar “customer-first” phrases, the second half of Burger King’s message rang hollow as a BK employee hands you thousands of calories worth of greasy fried foods. The same tagline that would work for a beauty spa shouldn’t work for the home of the 600-calorie Whopper. 

On the flipside, Taco Bell knows exactly what its sliding glass door means to its patrons—a cheesy bite to satisfy the midnight munchies. While there are definitely those who are thriving during isolation, the Taco Bell lovers, like most, are just hoping that their guilty pleasures and routine pit stops are still there if they need them. The video is a 15-second clip reassuring the world that at least one small comfort is still open. It was 90% UGC and 100% on brand.

The world quickly learned that when things take a turn for the worst, run for the toilet paper. Cottonelle was more than happy to jump on the opportunity to be the hero and encouraged others to do the same in one short phrase, “share a square.” As soon as Shelter in Place was put in effect, toilet paper disappeared from store isles, back-ordered on Amazon and limited to one paper item per person. At this point, toilet paper was currency. Cottonelle urged the world to share a square, and that we’ll get through this together. A simple rhyme and a nearly bad joke, “Share a square,” actually spoke perfectly to the state of things early on and was a huge win for the brand that wouldn’t normally get this kind of publicity. 


A brand isn’t just a color palette or a logo. It’s a company’s personality and what that brand says will impact its reputation. Respect is earned by staying consistent and true to that personality, especially in unprecedented times. On the flip side, one bad message can ruin a lifetime of good ones. For those that seek the big win during a time like this, it’s important to weigh the risk to the reward. 

Hollywood has brought some remarkable characters to life. Think of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry and his famous line, “Go ahead make my day.” Or Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films—brilliant, inquisitive, and always two steps ahead. Those personalities have become so iconic that it’s hard to imagine either of them acting out of character. Think of how unnatural it would seem if Hermonie Granger suddenly became the punch-first-ask-questions-later type or how show-stopping it would be if Dirty Harry said “blimey” through gritted teeth. Strong personalities exist in the ad world as well, just in the form of brands. Some brand taglines are just as familiar as movie lines and are equally off-putting if they go off script.

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For example, TOM’s and Nike are both sneaker brands and household names. Putting trademarks aside, if TOM’s, the philanthropic shoemaker added “Just Do It” to the end of its ads, it would not mean the same thing as the three-word tagline that closes every Nike commercial. “Just Do It” for TOM’s might be some call to altruism, while Nike wants you to get active. For these companies staying “on-brand” is even more important in times of crisis.


Posted by Grant Weber

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